NEW ORLEANS — The upcoming election here will attract national attention as residents vote on who will lead their reconstruction.
But beneath the hullabaloo is an obscure, less riveting issue that advocates of change say could be just as big a step in helping the city reinvent itself.
Now is the time, they say, to revamp the city's antiquated system of property assessment, a system that some view as wasting money and encouraging cronyism.
For more than a century, New Orleans has had seven elected property assessors -- each with their own staff and responsibility for a separate district -- to assess the city's 164,000 parcels. The system is unique in Louisiana and is believed to be like no other in the country.
Los Angeles County, in comparison, has one elected assessor, whose staff assessed value on 2.6 million properties last year, the office's website says.
New Orleans assessor jobs have been handed down from father to son and husband to wife; one seat has been in a family since 1904.
"We have a screwy, curious, historically developed property-assessment system," said Shaun Rafferty, a local attorney who is leading the nascent movement to overhaul the assessor system. "We've kind of tolerated it. But the hurricane has caused everybody to reanalyze everything."
Since Hurricane Katrina, a new political activism has replaced the city's long-standing complacency. Many people here see the hurricane as a rare chance to discard an outdated system and begin renovating New Orleans' image as a backwater of corruption and inefficiency that left the city vulnerable before the storm.
The assessor system "didn't have anything to do with the emergency response" to Katrina, said Paul Cordes, another lawyer seeking to revamp the system. "But the general fragile nature of our city government -- this is the bedrock of it."
Riding the wave of change, a group of lawyers and businessmen have qualified a slate of assessor candidates -- known as the I Quit Ticket -- for the April 22 city elections.
The candidates -- who all hope to be listed on the ballot with the nickname "IQ" -- vow to lobby for legislation allowing voters to approve consolidating their offices into one, and resign en masse when that happens. Their resignations would force a special election of a single assessor.
"Everybody felt it was chasing after windmills to take on the assessors," said Bill Aaron, a former city attorney now in private practice and an I Quit Ticket board member. "Now, with Katrina, all bets are off."
Still the issue shows how slowly change can come here, even after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
A bill to allow a vote on consolidating New Orleans' seven assessors into one failed 8-6 in a state legislative committee last month. Among those opposing it were two legislators whose brother and father, respectively, are New Orleans assessors.
New Orleans has what critics contend are layers of redundant government that it can no longer afford, given its greatly reduced population and budget.
For example, Orleans Parish, whose boundaries are essentially the same as the city's, has a criminal sheriff, a civil sheriff and a coroner -- positions that many counties combine in one job. There are several court clerks, each with separate staff, handling the job one court clerk does in most counties.
But the best example of duplication and waste, they say, has been the assessors. Several studies have suggested that consolidating the offices under one appointed assessor would lead to sustainable city financing, and make assessing more accountable, predictable and efficient.
"Every other parish gets by with one," said Janet Howard, of the Bureau of Government Research, a nonpartisan think tank that has studied the system and advocated changing it. With assessor salaries and retirement benefits, New Orleans pays more than $700,000 a year for an assessor, Howard said.
"Even with seven assessors, the job doesn't get done," she said, in part because the money that should pay to modernize and hire appraisers goes to the assessors' salaries. The offices are understaffed and employ people with insufficient training.
The result has been a patchwork of inconsistent assessments for comparable properties. "The only people who are actually paying the taxes are new home buyers" who get their homes reassessed when the sale goes through, said Aaron, the former city attorney. "A lot of the wealthy people are not paying the taxes they should be paying and a lot of the middle-class people are actually bearing the tax burden."
The Times-Picayune newspaper investigated the system in 2004 and found assessments 41% below market value. In response, the Louisiana Tax Commission found that owner-occupied homes in the city were assessed at least 25% below market value. Last year, the commission ordered the New Orleans assessors to reassess all their residential housing -- a task they had embarked on when Katrina hit.